In Love And War

A Very Long Engagement is no Amelie

The French filmA Very Long Engagement sets its audience up for an ambush. When director Jean-Pierre Jeunet previously collaborated with actress Audrey Tautou, the pair penned a love letter to Paris, infatuation and the surprising generosity of life itself with Amelie. A Very Long Engagement sports a benign, romantic-sounding title, but arrives with the shocking force of a mail bomb, not a love note.

Engagement propels viewers into a minefield of both hidden disasters and equally unexpected blessings. Jeunet applies his visionary intricacy to obsessive love, the horrors of war and the possibility of miracles for a film of remarkable abundance.

Jeunet begins — and continually returns to — a bizarre sideshow of World War I's trench warfare in 1917. In a rapid series of flashbacks, we meet five French soldiers and quickly learn of their love lives, their peacetime occupations and the mutilations that connect them. They each inflicted wounds on their hands with hopes of getting discharged from military service. Instead, they're court-martialed for cowardice and face a unique form of capital punishment: They march to a specific trench, memorably nicknamed "Bingo Crepuscule," and go over the sandbags into the no-man's-land between the French and German lines. The hostilities of the opposing armies will finish them off. Eventually.

Raw recruit Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), nicknamed "Cornflower" by his comrades-in-arms, faced death at Bingo Crepuscule, but his body never surfaced. The events surrounding the trench, the tales of victims and survivors alike, emerge in the dogged post-war investigation of his young fiancee, Mathilde (Tautou). Convinced her childhood sweetheart still lives, Mathilde spends the film reading and writing letters, sifting through the effects of fallen soldiers and shedding light on an official cover-up. Her quixotic struggle resonates with any civilian effort to disperse the fog of war.

Limping from a childhood bout with polio and living with her aunt and uncle following her parents' deaths, Mathilde embodies grief and denial. Her dark eyes full of sorrow, not mischief, Tautou portrays Mathilde as a young woman knocked out of sync with the rest of the world. Yet she clings to Manech's memory with eccentricities worthy of Amelie: She'll say aloud, for instance, that if her dog enters her bedroom before her uncle calls her to dinner, that means Manech still lives.

During the course of her quest, Mathilde learns that she has a doppelganger. Corsican prostitute Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) also tries to learn the fate of her lover/pimp at Bingo Crepuscule — and along the way, she murders the French officers who sent the young men to their deaths. Like an avenging angel expressing the rage of any grieving wife, mother or daughter, she exacts revenge in atmospheric, suspenseful set pieces reminiscent of The Third Man.

Engagement also belongs in the camp of such recent films as The Royal Tannenbaums and Amelie, which feature omniscient narrators, a rapid pace and dense, highly specific approaches to detail. The approach can sacrifice emotional depth in the service of novelistic breadth, but Engagement (based on Sebastien Japrisot's book) seems to hold volumes. The quick, bloody, matter-of-fact casualties of war have a cumulative scope comparable to the way Kurt Vonnegut sounds the refrain "So it goes" after every death in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Throughout Engagement, Jeunet makes artful contrast of war and peace. We smile at a flashback of two young lovers kissing the beer-foam off each other's lips, then recoil at the sight of a dead horse splayed in a battlefield tree. For Mathilde, the symbols of combat replace those of passion. During their early courtship, Manech compares his devotion to an albatross, but later Mathilde learns that French soldiers called attacking German bi-planes "albatrosses."

Yet peace has its own powers to obliterate war. Mathilde visits the site of Bingo Crepuscule, only to discover that the killing ground has been grown over with idyllic pastures. The mud, blood and frost of the trenches give way to the ripeness of post-war France in perpetual harvest, shown when Mathilde meets Elodie at an abundant, open-air market that shows no signs of shortages. Against such images of renewal, Mathilde's refusal to let her wounded heart heal makes her an outsider, a lonely monument akin to her village's lighthouse.

By the end, Engagement fills us with a sense of awe that at once encompasses the world at its most terrible and its most beautiful. If Amelie spoke solely to the joys of being alive, A Very Long Engagement tells us the rest of the story.